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By Lux Alptraum
When Lindy West’s essay collection, “Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman,” debuted in 2016, it struck a chord with many women. In the book, West — an outspoken feminist woman who refuses to apologize for being fat — shares stories of being shamed for her body and learning to truly love it, of the harassment women face purely for having an opinion online and, touchingly, of how she managed to fall in love, get married and find the happiness to which fat women are too often told they do not deserve access.
Three years later, “Shrill” has been reborn as a series on Hulu, which repackages and retells West’s story through the character of Annie Easton, an aspiring Portland-based writer who spends the series’ six episodes accepting herself, standing up for what she believes in and navigating the complex minefield that is sex, dating and relationships in your twenties.
Since its debut, “Shrill” has earned effusive praise for its honest and sympathetic portrayal of modern womanhood, with fans highlighting its racially diverse cast and commitment to celebrating bodies of all shapes and sizes. For instance, in the fourth episode, “Pool,” Annie attends an event called the Fat Babe Pool Party with her roommate and best friend. The sea of scantily clad fat women whose bodies are lovingly filmed as they joyfully and unapologetically have fun in the sun has been held up as the epitome of “Shrill’s” commitment to doing things differently from most of what we see on TV.
But its radical commitment to body positivity and diversity isn’t the only thing that separates “Shrill” from other woman-centric offerings. In the decades since “Sex and the City”made it okay for women to talk about oral sex on TV, a number of shows have promised to give audiences an honest, unflinching look at the sex lives of young women. HBO’s “Girls” drew attention for its willingness to showcase dirty talk and sex acts that even “Sex and the City’s” Samantha would have found unthinkable. On Comedy Central, “Broad City” has joyously celebrated pegging, masturbation, pornography and sex toys (the show even has its own branded line of toys). And even a broadcast network like The CW has “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” where bawdy puns and innuendo are frequently a part of the storyline.
“Shrill” approaches sex and dating with an equally forthright attitude, even going so far as to feature a plot about having an abortion in the very first episode. But unlike its some of its predecessors, “Shrill’s” honest and open attitude towards sex and sexuality doesn’t require Annie to aggressively push social conventions or demonstrate her own predilection for kink.
There’s no attempt, as in “SATC,” “Girls” or “Broad City,” to shock the audience with Annie’s prodigious libido or appetite for exploration; the edgiest sex act featured on the show is condom-free sex, to which Annie consents in the hope that it will make her partner like her more. The show’s boldness comes not from any propensity to venture into something unfamiliar to the intended audience, but from a willingness to honestly depict the mundanity of sex in your twenties and the common choices women face around it.
“Shrill’s” honesty also extends to its warts-and-all depiction of dating, in which women are allowed to make bad choices without inviting the audience’s negative judgment — and where those bad choices aren’t sugar-coated or used to set up an unrealistic, deus ex machina style romantic storyline.
At the beginning of the series, for example, Annie is dating Ryan, an unambitious deadbeat dad who’s mostly interested in getting high, having fun and recording an unlistenable podcast with his friends. By the end of the first season — despite an abortion, a personal awakening, a brand new career and a hook-up with a stunningly gorgeous long-time friend — Annie is still dating Ryan, convinced that she has a responsibility to make their relationship work in spite of Ryan’s many and obvious flaws.
In a lesser series, Ryan might eventually be revealed to be a diamond in the rough. For instance, though Adam began “Girls” as Hannah’s unfeeling hookup, he was eventually revealed to be a sensitive artist and a devoted boyfriend. On “Shrill,” there’s no indication that Ryan will ever be worth Annie’s time (especially given the arc of the memoir on which it is based). The show makes it clear that Annie can do better, and yet it repeatedly allows her to choose not to — crafting a highly relatable and extremely sympathetic story about why women sometimes settle for less in our romantic lives.
Not everyone will see themselves in Annie, of course; she’s just one character who can only tell so many stories. But with its generous and loving depiction of what dating is like when you’re young, unsure of yourself and convinced that whomever you’ve managed to land is as good as you’re likely to get, the show offers a necessary voice to the growing chorus of stories about coming of age as a woman.